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Many novelists are discovering the rewards of writing for games, whether game-ifying their own concepts or as staff or freelance writers for established gaming properties. In 2022, an estimated 3.2 billion people worldwide played games, and the average age of a gamer is 31. Led by video games and mobile gaming, the gaming industry aims for total earnings around $300 billion for this fiscal year, or about seven times the size of the publishing industry. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that pie?

Gaming has many different roles for writers. In the last year, I’ve seen opportunities from writing flavor text for Magic: The Gathering cards to story development for Call of Duty. While many associate gaming with science fiction and fantasy, romance and mystery are very popular—just about every commercial genre of fiction has an analog in gaming. In this article, I’ll look at different ways that writers can engage with the gaming market.

Game-based text

One growth area is literary role-playing games, or LitRPG, a hybrid of novel craft with game-like elements. According to K-lytics, Google searches for LitRPG have doubled in the last two years. The character progresses through levels in a game environment and may encounter messages, statistic (stat) displays, or text that replicate video or tabletop games. Sold through familiar pathways, these books appeal to readers of related genres as well as gamers. They can be indie, specialty press, or trad published titles.

Timothy Cerepaka, who writes LitRPG as Lucas Flint, describes the genre as, “usually set in either (designed by the author) VR video games or worlds that operate by video-game-like rules, starring characters who generally start off weak and must become stronger via leveling up, getting new skills and equipment, and so on.” Character journeys might involve dungeon adventures, defeating bad guys, or just learning to brew the best ale.

He started writing LitRPG after reading a number of books in the genre. Look for reader groups on Facebook and Reddit where you can learn more about what readers respond to. While it helps to be a gamer already, you can also research game design. Cerepaka advises, “When readers tell you that it feels like a real video game, or even better, that they want to play a video game based off your book—that’s how you know you got it right.”

Writing a good LitRPG requires keeping track of mathematical details like experience points and progress toward the next level, which Cerepaka initially found frustrating, and may be off-putting to some authors hoping to enter the genre. You can work with specialist editors who will help ensure consistency throughout the work. He notes that the genre is huge in audiobooks, and he recommends getting your LitRPG into audio as quickly as possible.

If you’re interested in the concept of game-based fiction but don’t want to lean into the statistics, a related genre, GameLit, presents novels inspired by gaming but is less focused on game-style mechanics. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is one example.

Text-based games

Also called interactive fiction, in these games the screen and the player/reader’s interaction is entirely driven by text. Illustrations may show characters or settings, but they’re not necessary to the game. If you’ve read a choose-your-own-adventure novel, this will sound familiar. However, computers allow for a wider range of choices, and the algorithms keep track so the player’s choices affect what they see later on, through direct options like the character’s name or interest in romance but also through stats that reflect player choices and successes or failures.

During the pandemic, I wrote a superhero project, Skystrike: Wings of Justice, for Choice of Games (CoG), an industry leader. Of note for romance writers, they have an imprint dedicated to romance games, and all of the games are encouraged to include strong romantic lines. I pitched a few ideas and sent a sample of my work. I was invited to expand one pitch into an outline then a complete game. CoG pays an advance against royalties, portioned as you submit groups of chapters, ensuring the author gets editorial feedback at early stages of the process.

A CoG author is also the programmer, creating the syntax that controls the game simultaneously with the text the reader sees. The programming language, ChoiceScript, is available for anyone, and you can release games independently as well. It’s very well supported with online resources and tutorials, but the process is finicky because a small error can result in an unplayable game.

I enjoyed the brainstorming and creative aspects of game development. Instead of committing to a single option for the protagonist’s action, I developed three to five and explored the consequences of each. For my superhero game, those choices might range from trying to convince someone to trust you, to flying them over a waterfall and threatening to drop them. It was liberating to imagine a play-through by a Captain America type who wanted to do the honorable thing versus one inflected by a Deadpool sensibility, and offer fun choices for each of them.

One source of frustration was the intensity of feedback not only from the editors and copy editors at CoG, but also from beta players prior to the release of the game. It required a lot of fine-tuning to have the right text show up and to track down bugs—like one that funneled almost all players into a failure scenario! My game is about three times as long as one of my novels, because of all the options available.

Other interactive fiction opportunities include apps like Chapters, which works with freelancers. You can create and release independently using Twine or other interactive fiction tools.

From the reader/player perspective, part of the fun is getting a different experience with every read-through. It places the reader in the driver’s seat of your novel, a release of control that may not suit every novelist. I found novelist Max Gladstone’s articles and interviews about writing CoG games based on his novels to be very helpful.

Text and story for games

Many graphic-based and tabletop games offer opportunities for writers, including story development—guiding storylines that play out through video or other interactions—or drafting dialogue for on-screen interactions with various NPCs (Non-Player Characters). Most video games involve several story-oriented roles, incorporating elements of novel writing like character arcs or world-building.

Novelist and screenwriter Christine Ellis works as a narrative designer at Tactile Games, creating mobile games (as opposed to video games or console-based games). At some studios, the designer strictly works on the narrative system and how the pipeline works (who will take care of each phase of story development, and what order those phases take place). Narrative design is a more technical role, while game writing is more creative, focused on story arcs and character dialogue. At other studios, including her employer, narrative design and game writing are closely linked, and Ellis enjoys the more creative aspects of game writing. She works on Lily’s Garden, a free-to-play (f2p), story-driven, match-three game (“think Candy Crush with an ongoing narrative”).

Studios may include story or game directors, who maintain the vision and voice of the game as a whole, with narrative designers handling smaller units (chapters, episodes or levels). Her work takes place in the Unity game development engine.

Game writing for existing works is hugely collaborative, perhaps more so than film or television, in Ellis’s experience. “Nothing you write, and no decision you make, is ever entirely up to you. If you can embrace that, you’ll be a very successful (and much happier) game writer/narrative designer!” She’s come to enjoy the collaboration, seeing a character concept from her words become a 2D, then 3D vision.

“As a fiction writer, I was used to writing stories that exist in a kind of bubble. There’s no guarantee that anything you write will ever be published. Not true in games! The dialogue I write is released a few weeks later and then your words are just out there, in the world, being experienced by players,” Ellis says.

This reflects my own experience, where I could envision players investing in my words in very personal ways as they played.

Much of the creativity is governed by game parameters, and also the players, but this can also be freeing. Ellis says, “When faced with super strict story parameters, try not to think of them as limitations but instead as opportunities. Some of the coolest ideas and the best creativity can come out of working with, even celebrating, the limits of design.”

The industry itself can be frustrating, with misogyny and sexism often earning headlines in recent years. Thanks to that new awareness, though, Ellis feels the industry is moving in a more positive direction.

Online games aren’t the only opportunity for writers, however, and many big-name properties have opportunities for work-for-hire and freelance writing. If you were ever a Dungeons and Dragons player, license holder Wizards of the Coast enables independent writers to develop supplements for the game.

Historical novelist Christopher M. Cevasco finds this to be a fun outlet for his interest in world-building and bringing historical details to life. The supplements incorporate some flavor text that’s more similar to fiction, but the bulk of the work is developing new game mechanics and applying existing ones. He’s written independent materials for D&D, making them available through the officially sanctioned DmsGuild store, as well as working with a supplement publisher.

When asked to consider how game writing compares with novels, Cevasco summed it up well, saying, “In a novel, the author has the final say on a character’s journey, but in a game, the player does, so the creator has to provide all the tools necessary for the player to complete that character’s arc in a way that feels grounded and defined but is also open-ended enough to accommodate unanticipated variation.”

Indeed, part of the fun is developing unexpected moments for interaction, the little Easter eggs that delight gamers and keep them coming back. Even more so than when a reader interprets the author’s words, game writing is a collaboration between story-creators and the player, with a unique set of challenges and rewards.

Game writing resources


Elaine Isaak aka E. Chris Ambrose writes knowledge-inspired adventure fiction, including the Bone Guard archaeological thrillers. If you’re curious about interactive fiction, you can play the first three chapters of Skystrike for free.


This article 
is from the August 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. 

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